As an Egyptian I felt very proud while touring the Bible House Experience Museum on the riverbank in Frankfurt. The museum, which was established in 2003, offers diverse
approaches to the Bible, and provides an insight into Biblical traditions from the beginnings in a nomadic tent to the modern world of multimedia.
The building which houses the museum was a former church. Today, it is home to a large number of manuscripts, the major part of which was brought from Egypt.
Transfer of culture
I joined a tour of the museum. In our tour, we were accompanied by the museum director Pfarrer Jürgen Schefzyk, Assistant Director for Education Pastor Viet Dihkelakes and Father Kamil Samaan, a Catholic Egyptian priest who kindly assisted in translating from and to German.
The museum director said that the idea of the museum was about revealing what is beyond the text of the Bible, since “what we received from the East was text in oriental context and background, so we needed to understand it”. All the incidents cited in the Bible, he said, took place in the East; the West may not fully understand then owing to the difference in culture. The Bible, he reminded, connected us with the East of some 2000 years ago.
“We designed a boat similar to those used during the time of Jesus; a Jewish pilgrimage garment; samples of cooking utensils such as the Rahaya (grindstones) used to grind grain; a tent; and clothes of both men and women,” Schefzyk said. Besides these manufactured replicas, the museum uses modern technology such as designing a three dimensional replica to the Temple of Jerusalem.
Modern technology is also used to highlight the various manuscripts. At the click of a button, the entire text of the manuscript lights up in full detail, while the text is read in its original language. We listened to one in Arabic, with the voiceover by Rev. Dr Tharwat Qades, an Egyptian Evangelical pastor who emigrated to Germany in the 1940s and whose dedicated efforts were pivotal in establishing the Bible House Experience Museum. We also listened to one in Coptic, read by Father Bigol Bassily of St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Frankfurt.
Manuscripts come to life
The museum is divided into three sections; the first houses manuscripts of the Old Testament; the second is ‘Jesus Era’; the third is about Abraham.
In the manuscripts section there is a sample of the Kenz Qumran (literally Treasure of Qumran; Arabic name for The Dead Sea Scrolls). They were found on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea by Mohamed al-Deeb from the tribe of al-Talba in 1947, housed in jars, in a cave at what is now known as the Qumran site. He sold them, not realising that they were a comprehensive library that included most of the books of the Old Testament. The first full text of the Book of Isaiah was among them. The Dead Sea Scrolls are among the greatest discoveries for the Torah; only the books of Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah were not there.
The section also showcases 300 original manuscripts from Egypt; the most famous among them is the original Chester Beatty Papyri in Greek. These papyri, which were found near Fayoum, some 100km southwest of Cairo, are shown only three months a year to avoid potential damage. Coptic monks, Schefzyk said, played a vital role in preserving these manuscripts for the whole world.
Computer screens show visitors how the manuscripts are restored, how to make use of them, and also presents comparisons between the ancient and modern texts.
There are also original shards and deer skins with inscriptions from the Old Testament on it.
The Jesus era
The ‘Era of Jesus Christ’ showcases a three-dimensional model of the last Temple of Jerusalem built by King Herod. It also shows clothes and utensils of the era, to make it easy for people to imagine how life was at that time.
A life size model of a wooden fishing boat dominates the scene, similar to the one Jesus’s disciples used in fishing. There is also a sample for an original Jewish garment to show the idea of the pilgrimage of Jews to Jerusalem for their feast days.
In the same section, there are 30 original pieces of silver that date back to 2000 years ago, brought from the town of Sidon; this led me to ask if these are the original pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus. But, no, I was told, they are in the same currency, sum and are original, but there was nothing to prove they were the same Judas’ pieces.
Again, in this section, there are a large number of papyri and manuscripts of the New Testament and a full version in Greek of the Gospel of Mathew.
Among the most interesting exhibits, for me, was a model of John Gutenberg printing press which visitors may use to print a text from the Bible. I printed a chapter from the Revelation, and I kept it as a souvenir.
The questions Muslims ask
As for the third section, it is called Abraham and the law. This section attracts Muslims and it contains a nomad’s tent from Abraham’s time that helps people imagine what life was like then. There are cooking utensils and a stone slab of Moab, Phoenicia and Egypt.
The museum director told us that some 28,000 guests visit the museum annually; Catholics, Evangelicals, and non-Christians. Many of the visitors are students and young people.
The museum is designed to be dynamic. When Muslims, especially the Turkish, visit the museum, they think that the Bible was ‘dictated’ by Allah like they believe the Qur’an was, but we tell them that it was not. And when they say that the present-day Bible was misquoted somewhere down in history, we show them the manuscripts and their dates and screen the scientific films on these manuscripts.
12 May 2013